Cruise Ship Disaster Puts Focus On Safety Concerns

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 18, 2012 7:50 am

The dramatic Costa Concordia accident off the coast of Italy is calling attention to the regulation of the cruise line industry. Experts say there are plenty of rules, but enforcement can be spotty.

Some of the survivors of last week's disaster described the rescue effort as chaotic and disorganized. The crew had not yet conducted a required emergency drill during the cruise.

Dan Brehm, a lieutenant commander at the U.S. Coast Guard's Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, says whatever might have happened on the Costa Concordia, safety regulations are very clear.

"Wherever that ship operates, it has to be in compliance with international regulations and any domestic laws that apply, depending on where it's operating," he says.

The Coast Guard is the enforcement agency for U.S.-based ships, and Brehm says it also enforces the rules on any international ship that enters a U.S. port.

"Not only do the crews themselves have to inspect their own equipment [periodically], but they have to undergo a weekly emergency drill, and the crew has to participate in these drills at least once a month. Additionally, the company has to do an audit of the ship once a year," he says.

An arm of the United Nations called the International Maritime Organization makes these rules. They detail everything from where and how many life vests ought to be stowed, to the instruction on evacuation procedures that passengers must receive within 24 hours of boarding.

But there are those who say the industry and its regulators fall short.

A 'Wake-Up Call'

Nautilus International, a maritime workers union, called last week's shipwreck a "wake-up call" highlighting long-standing safety concerns and what it sees as lax regulation. For example, the union says ships have been allowed to get too large to evacuate quickly.

Kendall Carver founded another group called the International Cruise Victims Association and is a vocal critic of the industry. "They're not policed," he says.

Carver's adult daughter, Merrian, disappeared from a cruise ship in 2004. Neither the crew nor the cruise company notified law enforcement of her disappearance. Her unsolved case inspired Congress to pass a law requiring reporting of crimes on cruise lines.

Carver says as he investigated his daughter's case, he uncovered a shadowy underground where cruise lines escape regulatory scrutiny. That's why, he says, allegations that the Costa Concordia did not follow protocol do not come as a shock.

"I'm not terribly surprised. I am sure that is not the first time that ship has deviated off course," he says.

Carver says a simple GPS system should have set off alarms, and that the accident raises another issue: Cruise lines are hiring from countries where labor is cheap, and they don't do enough safety training.

"That crew, they weren't even speaking the same language as the passengers," he says.

Carver says cruise lines also hire high-ranking officials from the FBI or the Coast Guard, and the result is a too-cozy relationship between the regulators and the industry.

Safety As Good Business Policy

Peter Wild, the managing director of a London consultancy to the cruise line industry, does not agree with those charges. He says safety precautions are followed, if nothing else because they are good business policy.

"The last thing the industry wants is a disaster like this," Wild says, "so they make tremendous efforts to avoid any such events."

He notes that cruise lines have a better record than airlines, in terms of deaths per million passengers.

"The fact of the matter is that almost all of the 4,000 people onboard the ship got away ... safely. Sadly, some didn't. But in the scale of the event, the evacuation was achieved," Wild says.

The industry will work hard, he says, to learn from its mistakes.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The tragedy of an Italian cruise ship follows the lines of a story that's deep in our bones. Stories of shipwrecks are as old as sea travel itself.

MONTAGNE: More than a century ago, Joseph Conrad's novel "Lord Jim" told of a craven sea captain who abandoned ship, leaving his many passengers to fend for themselves. Now in real life, in 2012, the captain of the Costa Concordia is under house arrest for fleeing his vessel as it capsized off the coast of Italy.

INSKEEP: The dangers of sea travel are very different from the image promoted by cruise lines, which invite passengers on to floating hotels and amusement parks. And the incident is calling attention to the safety regulations of the cruise line industry.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Some of the survivors of Friday's disaster described the rescue effort as chaotic and disorganized. The ship had not yet conducted a required emergency drill.

Dan Brehm is a lieutenant commander at the U.S. Coast Guard's Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise. He says whatever might have happened on the Costa Concordia, safety regulations are very clear.

DAN BREHM: Wherever that ship operates, it has to be in compliance with international regulations and any domestic laws that apply, depending on where it's operating.

NOGUCHI: He says the Coast Guard enforces the rules on any ship that enters a U.S. port or carries U.S. citizens.

BREHM: Not only do the crews themselves have to inspect their own equipment weekly or monthly, as it may be; they have to undergo a weekly emergency drill, and the crew has to participate in these drills at least once a month. Additionally, the companies have to do an audit of the ship once a year.

NOGUCHI: An arm of the United Nations called the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, makes these rules. They detail everything from where and how many life vests ought to be stowed, and that passengers must receive instruction on evacuation procedures within 24 hours of boarding. But there are those who say the industry and its regulators fall short.

Nautilus International, a maritime workers union, called last week's shipwreck a wakeup call, highlighting long-standing safety concerns and what it sees as lax regulation - including, for example, that ships have been allowed to get too large to evacuate quickly.

Kendall Carver founded another group called the International Cruise Victims Association and is a vocal critic of the industry.

KENDALL CARVER: What I'm saying is they're not policed.

NOGUCHI: Carver's adult daughter, Merriam, disappeared off of a cruise ship in 2004. Neither the crew nor the cruise company notified law enforcement of her disappearance. Her unsolved case inspired Congress to pass a law requiring reporting of crimes on cruise lines. Carver says as he investigated his daughter's case, he uncovered a shadowy underground where cruise lines escape regulatory scrutiny. Which is why, he says, allegations that the Costa Concordia did not follow protocol do not come as a shock.

CARVER: I'm not terribly surprised. I mean I am sure this is not the first time that ship has deviated off course.

NOGUCHI: Carver says a simple GPS system should have set off alarms. He says the accident raises another issue - that cruise lines are hiring from countries where labor is cheap, and they don't do enough safety training.

CARVER: That crew, they weren't even speaking the same language as the passengers.

NOGUCHI: Carver says cruise lines also hire high-ranking officials from the FBI or the Coast Guard and the result is a too-cozy relationship between the regulators and industry.

These are not charges Peter Wild agrees with. Wild is the managing director of a London consultancy to the cruise line industry. He says safety precautions are followed - if nothing else - because they are good business policy.

PETER WILD: The last thing the industry wants is a disaster like this. I mean that's the last thing they want. So they make tremendous efforts to avoid any such events.

NOGUCHI: He notes cruise lines have a better record, in terms of deaths per million passengers, than airlines.

WILD: The fact of the matter is that almost all of the 4,000 people on board the ship got away safely. Sadly, some didn't. But in the scale of the event, the evacuation was achieved.

NOGUCHI: The industry will work hard, he says, to learn from its mistakes.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.